Psychoanalyst: ‘Reactance’ could determine Brexit

UK voters have been heavily impacted by government and media campaigning on the Brexit issue. [Sarantis Michalopoulos]

Lessons from the 2015 Greek referendum, and France’s rejection of the European Constitution in 2005, could help the EU avoid a Brexit. EURACTIV Greece reports.

The role of mainstream media, combined with the stance of influential political figures, played a significant role in the final outcome of the Grexit referendum last July.

As happened in the French referendum in 2005, with the rejection of a European Constitution, both countries’ citizens went to vote under similar circumstances which crucially affected the final vote.

British Prime Minister David Cameron promised to renegotiate the UK’s relations with the EU and then hold a referendum, to determine whether or not the United Kingdom should remain in the EU.

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Taking into consideration the conditions under which voters made their final decision in both Greece and France, mass psychology will be a critical factor in the upcoming Brexit vote on 23 June.

Greek and French referenda

On 5 July 2015, the leftist Syriza government held a referendum to decide whether Greece was to accept the bailout conditions proposed by the country’s international creditors, the European Commission (EC), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank (ECB).

Despite the pressure applied by mainstream media and the vast majority of Greek political parties, 61% of Greeks voted “No”.

Almost all Greek media, as well as leading politicians, publicly backed a “Yes” vote.

Among others, former prime ministers Costas Karamanlis, Antonis Samaras, Constantine Mitsotakis, and Costas Simitis as well as Athens Mayor George Kaminis, led the Yes campaign and urged citizens not to take the country out of the EU.

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Similarly, in 2005, in France, unhappy with the governing elite, voters rejected a European Constitution, despite a mounting pressure by mainstream media and the political echelon.

Speaking on national radio and television from his office at the Elysee palace three days before the French referendum, President Jacques Chirac made a last appeal for a Yes vote warning that a No vote would mean a “No” to Europe.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder had also added his support to the Yes campaign in the French referendum.

But, French voters did not listen to their President’s advice, with 56% rejecting the constitution.

According to psychiatrist Dr. Dimitrios Papadimitriadis, psychology is important in explaining voter behavior.

Psychological reactance

Commenting on the Greek referendum, Papadimitriadis told EURACTIV that when people sense that their freedom to choose is threatened, they get uncomfortable.

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“This feeling also motivates them to perform the jeopardized behaviour, thus proving that their free will has not been compromised. This phenomenon is known as psychological reactance (not to be confused with the psychological resistance in Freudian psychoanalysis) and was first described by J. W. Brehm in 1966,” he said. Reactance occurs when a person or a group of people feel that someone or something is taking away their choices or limiting the range of alternatives, Papadimitriadis added,

“For example, when someone is heavily pressured to accept a certain view or attitude, the person goes on to adopt or strengthen a view or attitude that is contrary to what was intended, and also increases resistance to persuasion,” the psychoanalyst stressed.

“No” is not an option

Papadimitriadis continued, saying that the strain on public opinion in Greece was enormous.

“The European Commission, along with the eurozone’s three leading countries, as well as the opposition parties in Greece, and the majority of the mainstream media (i.e. all the usual suspects for the plight of the country in people’s heads), launched an orchestrated warning to voters that a “No” vote would mean ab exit from the single currency and inevitably exit from the EU.”

He said that public figures, bankers, politicians, established businessmen and journalists were jamming all major TV and radio broadcasts “super stressing that “No” was not an option […] that there was no other choice”.

“Language that is dogmatic, with imperatives such as “must”, “need”, “should” or “ought”, absolute allegations such as “this issue is extremely serious” and (the) derision of other alternatives, such as “any reasonable person would agree that…”, is perceived as more sinister and causes anger, and unfavourable thoughts.”

“During the reactance experience people, tend to become uneasy and to have hostile or aggressive feelings, often aimed more at the source of a threatening message than at the message itself. In this sense, the content of the arguments presented on the media in favor of Yes became faint, not to say barely perceptible,” Papadimitriadis concluded.

Michael George Broad, a British student at the London School of Economics (LSE), told EURACTIV Greece: “Since the announcement of the EU referendum date on 23 June, the national tabloids, at least in my opinion, have become increasingly more divided and extreme in terms of political ideologies. It is clear that far-right media in particular has been producing increasingly biased anti-EU stories that paint the Brexit as the best possible option to better the livelihoods of British people.”

Broad added: “In particular, there has been increasing attacks on migration, with an upsurge of stories claiming migrants are both taking away jobs or claiming from the welfare state. This has been amplified by political discourse, with recent yes/no divides within the major political parties giving supposid credibility to the ‘leave’ campaign”.

“Instead of focusing on the massive benefits Britain reaps from the EU, such as the free movement of its own people, gaining high skilled workers and growth there has been more scaremongering by the media. I believe that myself and many other young voters can see through this façade, and it has made me more determined to cast my vote and to push for Britain to remain part of the EU,” he concluded.

British Prime Minister David Cameron promised to renegotiate the UK's relations with the European Union. The renegotiation will be followed by a referendum by the end of 2017, to decide whether or not the United Kingdom should remain in the EU.

If he achieves the reforms, Cameron will campaign to stay in. Otherwise, the Conservatives might campaign to leave the EU. This decision could have far-reaching consequences for trade, investment and Great Britain's position on the international scene.

Some other European countries are ready to listen to Cameron's concerns on issues such as immigration, and may be prepared to make limited concessions to keep Britain in the bloc.

But EU leaders also have their red lines, and have ruled out changing fundamental EU principles, such as the free movement of workers, and a ban on discriminating between workers from different EU states.


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